The 2013 lane closures at the George Washington Bridge—now known as Bridgegate—have dogged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie since the public was first made aware that they happened. While Christie has regularly denied any knowledge of the closures, the indictment and guilty verdict against two of his former staffers in relation to the case has pushed the governor’s approval rating to an all time low of 19 percent.
While jurors reached a decision in federal court last month regarding former Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and former Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority Bill Baroni, a private citizen appeared in front of a Bergen County Superior Court Judge on Wednesday in an effort to get a special prosecutor appointed to investigate a charge of official misconduct lodged against Christie.
The judge, Bonnie Mizdol, said on Wednesday that her decision will be made by the end of the week. The private citizen who lodged the official misconduct complaint, Bill Brennan, says that a special prosecutor is a must in order for Christie to be tried fairly. Brennan believes that there is a conflict of interest related to those who work under Christie appointee NJ Attorney General Chris Porrino working on the case. Both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Attorney General deny that any conflict exists.
According to attorney Joe Hayden, there is no legal precedent on which to base examination of the recent Bridgegate development.
“It is an interesting legal issue but I know of no legal precedent for a private citizen to be able to compel a superior court judge to appoint a special prosecutor over the objection of law enforcement personnel who believe they don’t have a conflict,” Hayden said.
The closest to a precedent is the 1972 indictment and conviction of former New Jersey Secretary of State Paul Sherwin. In that case, a special prosecutor was appointed. However, the case differs because a private citizen was not involved. Instead, former Attorney General George F. Kugler Jr. asked former Chief Justice Joseph Weintraub for the appointment due to concern about the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Associate Professor of Politics at Seton Hall University Matt Hale said that regardless of Judge Mizdol’s decision, the Bridgegate issue is likely to remain in the public eye due to appeals made by both Kelly and Baroni. He also said that Christie is likely to be haunted by Bridgegate for the foreseeable future.
“I think that the Bridgegate story is going to be part of Chris Christie’s epitaph on his gravestone and in his obituary,” Hale said. “In some respects the people of New Jersey have already convicted him in the court of public opinion over Bridgegate.”
If Mizdol does decide a special prosecutor is needed, Hale said that Christie’s approval ratings could sink below the records currently held by former Governors Jim Florio and Brendan Byrne. The approval ratings of both sunk to 17 percent at points during their respective tenures.
“I think if a special prosecutor is appointed then Chris Christie is going to set the record for the lowest approval ratings in New Jersey gubernatorial history. I think this would be enough to let him be the record holder,” Hale said. “The term special prosecutor means big trouble for politicians. It doesn’t matter what the special prosecutor does, it doesn’t matter what the special prosecutor sets out to do, it matters that the headline would be ‘Special Prosecutor to Investigate Chris Christie.’”
According to Hale, if a special prosecutor is not appointed, Christie will likely continue his narrative that he was unaware of the lane closures as they happened. Hale also said that it might end some the hesitation President-Elect Donald Trump is likely facing regarding Christie as a cabinet appointee. Despite Christie’s early support of Trump, the New Jersey governor has yet to be offered a job in the administration.
“If there is no special prosecutor, there might be a small glimmer of hope that Christie could still find his way into a Trump administration. A special prosecutor keeps the story going and my sense is that is part of the reluctance for Christie to be anywhere near a Trump administration,” Hale said.
New Jersey state legislators including state Senator Ray Lesniak also support the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.